For this week’s Five Star Friday recommendation, I turn to one of my favorite books of all time – even when it was required reading in high school. A Tale of Two Cities remains heartbreakingly relevant and is a timeless classic for a reason: its poetic opening, the cathartic conclusion, unrequited love, sacrifice, revenge, violence, revolution, and social commentary.
‘Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death; — the last, much the easiest to bestow, O Guillotine!’
After eighteen years as a political prisoner in the Bastille, the ageing Doctor Manette is finally released and reunited with his daughter in England. There the lives of two very different men, Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer, become enmeshed through their love for Lucie Manette. From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, and they soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.
I’m in the camp that argues this is Dickens at his best. I recently re-read A Tale of Two Cities and was reminded that too often we view life as a series of two-sided opposites as Dickens so eloquently describes:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Isn’t every age the best of times and the worst, the spring of hope and the winter of despair? Dickens understood the desperation that results from hunger, poverty, and hopelessness caused by sustained persecution and tyranny. Dickens recognized changing to this two-sided social structure of the haves and have nots often results in an uprising against the powerful.
“Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious licence and oppression ever again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.”
The elegant prose and the epic story line keep the reader enthralled, but it’s the Sydney Carton’s evolution from selfish boozer to self-less martyr that makes this my favorite Charles Dickens novel.
Happy Reading, Susan C.
Or, you can listen to the audio version.